If I’d dared serve rosé to the wine cognoscenti three decades ago I’d likely have been labelled garishly gauche or an outré wine radical.
Anything pink was denigrated puerile pop or just playing to the crowd back then.
And quite a crowd it has turned out to be. Today rosé wine accounts for over 30% of French wine consumption, outselling even white. The US, Germany, UK and Italy all consume vast quantities of pink wine, and in 2019 over 23 million hectolitres were produced worldwide. Global production has fluctuated between 23 and 26 million hectolitres annually since 2003.
Old vine Zinfandel
The 80s saw the advent of Californian ‘Blush’. Made from White Zinfandel, a common red grape variety in gold rush country having been planted by early prospectors. Sutter Home’s White Zin was rumoured to have been the happy accidental result of a stuck ferment gone right. White Zinfandel or Blush as it became, was the most popular wine of 80s America. This was a time when many growers had been ripping out their old Zin vines in favour of international varieties like Cabernet and Chardonnay. Three million cases of Blush were produced in 1987 at Sutter Home, from a standing start only a few years before. No one could get enough of that pale pink crispy fruit driven nectar and White Zinfandel continues to thrive today.
Rosé, once the lowly butt of many an in-joke, has proved itself the missing link, replenishing wine sales by recruiting younger drinkers and finding favour in the once plutocratic powerhouses of Champagne who make theirs by adding red wine – most often Pinot Noir from the aptly named Bouzy. Spain make a pale pink rosado and a darker clarete. Italian Rosato, chiaretto, vinruspo is growing in stature – Veneto produces the most, followed by Abruzzo which even has its own rosé appellation, Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo. This can be grippy and complex. Chile is innovative in its offerings and even offers small productions of aromatically complex, textural, skin contact wines that are touching on Unicorn wine territory - rare wines beloved by wine nerds - Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia Rosé is such a wine - a barrel aged rosé made in Rioja.
Colour still counts – a few years ago I was advised any rose but the palest of peach was unsaleable. But there are exciting wines out there that offer a fuller hue and a more flavourful texture. The market for rosé is varied, sophisticated and wide. The best wines are made with grapes grown for rosé production, often they’ll be made with indigenous yeast enhancing the sense of place. Remember the bottle cost and advertising budget all come out of the profits, a simple bottle and a low marketing spend do not indicate bad wine.
Rosé is made in several ways. Most commonly, juice is left in brief contact with skins to confer colour and a bit of flavour. Some is made by a process called saignée or bleeding, extracting the first juice from red grapes before maceration. And where it is allowed, pink wines can also be made by blending in some red with white – this is how the vast majority of sparkling rosé is made. The deeply pink pahlete wines of Portugal are made by fermenting red and white grapes together, a method used by the ancient Phoenicians who passed their knowledge on to the Ancient Greeks and then in turn the Romans. This trading nation also bequeathed us the written word. Pretty ironic, for despite their viticultural influence being evident on the walls of the Pyramids, in ancient ports and ship-wrecked trading vessels loaded with wine amphorae, we do not actually know what they called themselves.
Pink wine is big business and almost every year it grows in popularity. Today exquisite rosés are made with grapes designated for the purpose. In the past US sweet pink Zinfandel had equal cachet to Black Tower in the UK – it was considered naff, the super saccharine sup of the ignorant. Bad rosé was and is made – sometimes out of the off cuts from red but that is certainly not the norm. You are more likely to find clean, fresh, bulk rosé with clever marketing and Insta faces behind it than anything sinister these days.
Rosé is unlikely to spend any time in barrel, that makes it cheaper to produce – excepting a few wonderful wines such as Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia Rosé, labelled a ‘Unicorn’ – so rare has it become and cultish its reach. The wine crowd adore its complexity and the language it speaks certainly needs to be acquired – not being at all like any other rosé either in flavour or hue. It is the colour of onion skin, is aged for four and a half years in barrel and a further five in bottle and only produced in ‘exceptional’ years. Never intended to be an expensive wine, it changes hands for well over one hundred pounds a bottle today.
Rosé isn’t usually a wine to be cellared either but there are more and more exceptions to even this now and there is certainly no need to buy the latest vintage. Most people do though - somehow rosé has been labelled summer wine with a short shelf life – an ethereal potion not built to last. This can be a help, producers make fast returns but it can also hinder sales, nobody wants last years’ model.
Pale rosé has been in fashion and therefore producers have had to go to some lengths to keep juice as light as possible. Ripe grapes have more colour so early picking is an option. Unripe grapes are more acidic and not as flavoursome, with technical knowhow producers can counter colour with a fining agent added to absorb and precipitate colloids. Colloids are colour containing solids present in wine. Care must be taken not to remove too many of these particles as flavour could be affected. Filtration may also be used with much the same result. There is a tightrope of taste to be navigated – in order to achieve a balanced product, colour, acidity, flavour and aroma must all work in harmony. Winemaking, especially bulk winemaking requires technical expertise. Nutrients are also useful for stimulating fermentation so specialist yeasts may be required to counter low extraction and early harvested grapes.
Pink wine from Portugal populated the world in the sixties. Born of second World War privation, Mateus rosé is the wine marketing success story of the twentieth century. In spite of Portugal’s wartime neutrality, Oporto, the capital of Port production was on its knees in 1947. Its route to sale was decimated by U-boats; besides that traditional European markets were made impecunious by war.
An enterprising young firm sought new customers in Portuguese-speaking Brazil - already a big market for Vinho Verde, Portugal’s popular light fresh spritzy white. Saddled with a titanic tonnage of unwanted red grapes they hired a French winemaker and created a slightly sweet spritzy pink – they threw in a nostalgic note, packaging it in flat flask-like bottles reminiscent of those distributed to WW1 troops. The name Mateus was inspired by a beautiful baroque villa near to the tatty co-op where it was produced - an image of this villa adorns every bottle to this very day.
The wine went stratospheric, overtaking Champagne in popularity in 60s London. The owners of that Baroque villa were offered a fixed fee for its use on the label or a percentage of the sales, unfortunately for them they chose the former.
Do real men drink pink?
Clever marketing has played a big part in perceptions of rosé today, much like Champagne – a strong brand image has emerged. Rosé drinking is often seasonal, 35% of France's total consumption is in Summer and 15% in winter. In the UK we quaff all year but there is a spike in consumption around Valentines Day - so pink and love are intricately linked in our psyches.
A first-hand account of a Christmas Jimi Hendrix spent in London at the house of its author Bruce Flemming details his desire for Mateus rosé. This is a fantastic marketing scoop, yet today rosé is usually accompanied by some vapid image of a wide brimmed straw hat, gingham tablecloths and a blonde-haired beauty in diaphanous white muslin. A shame as a beefy bloke would do just as well. I don’t think producers need be that concerned, not with their sales figures.
Today the market for rosé is varied, sophisticated and wide. Wines vary from near £120 to £9 and address the corners of this fascinating category which can no longer be dismissed as fad nor sugar rush. Wines to flex the intellect, that sit well on Instagramable yachts, at nerdy tastings and on sunny holidays enriched with garlic drenched lobster and unctuous fuits de mer.
Roberson has one of the most comprehensive Rosé collections in the UK - Check out the Producers and there wines below!